117th Congress launches antitrust agendaFebruary 25, 2021
Presented by American Edge Project
With help from Leah Nylen, John Hendel, Mark Scott and Eric Geller
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— The time has come: The House Judiciary antitrust panel today kicks off the first in a string of hearings that could lead to major legislative reforms to rein in Big Tech and overhaul U.S. competition law.
— The broadband battle lines: As Democrats envision scores of billions in digital infrastructure investments, some Republicans argue that spending far less can do just as much in helping to close the digital divide.
— Meet Thomas Hughes: As the Facebook Oversight Board mulls its highest-profile case yet, the man who runs its daily operations explains what he sees as the beginning of a new era of self-regulation.
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INTEROPERABILITY, NON-DISCRIMINATION AND ANTITRUST (OH MY!) — Sexy words, we know. House Judiciary’s antitrust subcommittee is back in full force today with the first in a series of hearings on antitrust and other potential reforms to deal with the power of the big online platforms: Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon. Chair David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and ranking Republican Ken Buck (Colo.) have yet to introduce legislation after last year’s blockbuster report on online platforms, preferring to get more feedback from experts first. In her testimony, Morgan Harper from the American Economic Liberties Project will highlight the group’s recent report on overhauling antitrust.
What else? POLITICO’s antitrust guru Leah Nylen breaks down the sexiest words in the wonky competition lexicon and introduces you to today’s expert witnesses.
— Interoperability (noun): The ability of computer systems or software to seamlessly connect and transfer data. Charlotte Slaiman, Public Knowledge’s competition director, will plug a proposal to require platforms to open up their networks, making it easier for users to switch to rivals. That would let consumers disgruntled with Facebook or Twitter move to other networks with better privacy or content moderation policies, for example.
MapBox CEO Eric Gundersen will explain what that would mean for mapping, an integral input for developing technologies like autonomous vehicles. Google prohibits companies from using its search tools on any maps but its own. “There’s no reason for that level of lock-in. The tech is inherently interoperable,” Gundersen told Leah. Last week, Google announced a six-year deal with Ford. “That could lock things up for the next generation of tech.”
— Non-discrimination: Hal Singer, an economist and frequent Amazon critic, will push for establishing a new tribunal where firms can quickly bring cases against platforms that unfairly leverage their power against rivals. App developers could use this non-discrimination regime, modeled after the FCC’s, to challenge Apple or Google’s app store rejections or self-preferencing behaviors by Amazon, Google or other platforms, Singer told POLITICO. Unlike the FCC’s system, though, Singer proposed the tribunal’s decisions could be appealed directly to an appeals court. “We don’t want to expose these decisions to politicization,” he said.
— Antitrust pause-button: John Thorne, an antitrust partner at Kellogg Hansen, will urge the panel to introduce a way for the DOJ and FTC to temporarily block potentially harmful conduct. (The Europeans call this “interim measures” and most recently used this power in 2019 against Broadcom.) Such a “pause button” would be useful for situations such as Apple’s plans to force app developers to get opt-in consent before tracking users, which the iPhonemaker has said will enhance privacy but developers and advertisers say will upend mobile ads.
THE BATTLES LINES AROUND BROADBAND — Lawmakers and industry groups are jockeying to shape the broadband internet investments likely to be embedded in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure efforts, John reports in a dispatch this morning. Senior Democrats like House Whip Jim Clyburn are eyeing a revival of their $100 billion package aimed at connecting the unconnected and funding programs to bolster digital equity, which is likely to take center stage in coming weeks.
— But Republicans, excluded from recent pandemic relief talks and reeling from a year of intense spending, bristle over these bigger price tags and instead point to less costly ways to close the digital divide.
“You’ve gotta pay for all of this stuff,” said Ohio’s Bob Latta, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce telecom subcommittee, referring to the pricier Democratic broadband proposals. “How do they come up with these figures and how are you going to spend it?” Although he prizes broadband’s bipartisan deal-making potential, he and many other congressional Republicans favor removing the regulatory hurdles broadband providers face in trying to build out their networks (like permitting on federal lands) and keeping investments tailored to avoid subsidizing competition with incumbent ISPs.
Bipartisan interest, at least, looms large: Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) brought up broadband directly in senators’ recent Oval Office meeting with Biden to discuss infrastructure.
— Watch for these debates to heat up this spring: Lawmakers will likely take on some of these infrastructure questions in the coming months after they wrap up the current pandemic relief bill. Although they’re able to pass this aid package without GOP buy-in, using budget reconciliation, they may need Republicans to move forward on infrastructure.
IN PROFILE: FACEBOOK OVERSIGHT BOARD’S MAGICIAN BEHIND THE SCENES — Hughes, a former human rights and free speech campaigner, now runs day-to-day operations at Facebook's Oversight Board, the independent body that determines what material can stay up on the world's largest social network. The group will soon decide if former president Donald Trump can rejoin Facebook — a case the Trump camp has now formally weighed in on. And while Hughes is not involved in those decisions, he told my colleague Mark Scott that the Board was already flexing its muscles.
— How much power does the board really have? The group has so far ruled against the company in five out of six cases. But questions linger about how independent the group can be if it has to negotiate with the company it’s tasked with making decisions about. "Facebook has clearly flagged that they intend to increase the Board's powers, and the Board fully intends to take those powers," he said, adding that should happen "within the next few months."
— The self-regulation question: Hughes defended Facebook's decision to create the oversight group (critics have described the body as “a distraction from the very serious issues that Facebook is failing to address”), saying there is space both for companies to take such self-regulatory steps to police online content and for governments to move ahead with their own legislation. "It is appropriate for corporate actors to set up properly independent self-regulatory structures and those structures deal with very difficult and important cases," he said. "I think self-regulation [in] content is on its way in,” he said.
— That's not how many countries see it: Everyone from the European Commission to individual countries like France and Singapore are moving ahead with efforts to better oversee the wave of potentially harmful content online. Read the full interview in Mark’s transatlantic tech newsletter, The Digital Bridge.
(SUPPLY) CHAIN REACTION — As we’d teased in MT, Biden signed an executive order Wednesday targeting the nation’s vulnerabilities to disruptions in global supply chains. The directive creates a 100-day review of four supply chains — including semiconductors — and a deeper one-year review of a broader range of industries, including the information and communications tech industrial base. It’s the latest reminder that government agencies and private businesses still depend heavily on technology from untrusted or unreliable vendors, a threat to national security.
— Tech companies are particularly concerned that the U.S. lacks a reliable, safe supply of semiconductors, which are vital to modern technology. The trade group TechNet urged Congress to appropriate money to incentivize domestic manufacturing and warned that “any attempt to alter the supply chain by picking winners and losers will have serious short-term and long-term consequences.”
Rick Klau, who recently left Google after more than a decade, was named California's chief technology innovation officer. … Katie Harbath, Facebook's public policy director for global elections, is leaving the company after a decade there.
Trevor Wagener, former deputy chief economist at the State Department, has joined the Computer & Communications Industry Association as director of research and economics, and Alyssa Doom, a former manager for the Pew Charitable Trusts, as state policy director.
Verizon was the big winner in the FCC's 5G airwaves auction. … HireVue, LexisNexis Risk Solutions, Shipt and Sprinklr have joined TechNet.
Amazon insiders sound alarm over security: A group of former high-level Amazon employees are raising alarm that the company’s efforts to protect the information it collects are inadequate, my colleague Vincent Manancourt reports. The workers “told POLITICO they had repeatedly tried to alert senior leadership in the company’s Seattle HQ [to privacy and compliance failures at Amazon], only to be sidelined, dismissed or pushed out of the company in what they saw as professional retaliation.”
Democrats attack fake news, and Republicans cry foul: “Democrats are morphing their scrutiny of online falsehoods into a broader campaign against misinformation on right-leaning television outlets — a development that Republicans and some media organizations are calling a government attack on the First Amendment,” John reports.
Setting the record straight: “The real story of what happened with news on Facebook in Australia,” via Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, Nick Clegg.
Political dilemma: “Sheryl Sandberg and top Facebook execs silenced an enemy of Turkey to prevent a hit to the company’s business,” ProPublica reports.
In profile: Rebekah Mercer, who is “[orchestrating] Parler’s second act,” WaPo reports.
U(SPTO)’ve got mail: Engine is pushing the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and federal policymakers to do more to advance diversity and inclusion in American innovation. More here.
Who wants in on future-of-work? The warehouse robotics company Berkshire Grey is going public, WSJ reports.
Tips, comments, suggestions? Send them along via email to our team: Bob King ([email protected], @bkingdc), Heidi Vogt ([email protected], @HeidiVogt), John Hendel ([email protected], @JohnHendel), Cristiano Lima ([email protected], @viaCristiano), Alexandra S. Levine ([email protected], @Ali_Lev), and Leah Nylen ([email protected], @leah_nylen).